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Makes a Fellow Proud to be an Astro

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log [1], a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 361 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.

4/23/03 W Houston 8-9 Leiter 32 146-115 W 4-2

It was supposed to be a destination. It wound up a detour. But that’s all right. As time would reveal, it was no place I wanted to put down roots. Yet I did get something out of what was ultimately a side trip in my career.

I got to sit in those cushy seats you see in the very, very first row. Those blue seats that you imagine you have to be somebody or know somebody to have access to. I’d like to think each and every one of us is somebody, but where the cushy blue seats are concerned, we don’t all shine on. Most of us do need to know somebody, somebody whose instant karma is backed up by a piece of collateral.

Like owning the team that’s visiting Shea Stadium.

We’ll make the other hitters laugh,

Then calmly break their bats in half,

It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.

—Unofficial team song, circa 1969, as related by Jim Bouton, Ball Four

It wasn’t all that long ago that I viewed the Houston Astros — a franchise benign to most of you — as the Braves with a twang, as the Yankees with a thing that goes bump in the outfield. I disliked the Astros that much, and it had nothing to with a Met-fueled rivalry. This was personal. This was me, not Mets.

See, I used to be one of them…sort of. No Bagwell, no Biggio, not even a passing of Julio Lugo in the hallway. For the better and worse part of seventeen months, however, I worked for the guy who worked for the guy who owned the Astros. I guess that should have made me like them, but the relationship never took, not me with the Astros, not me with the guy who worked for the guy. By the time it officially went kaput in April of 2004, there was no love lost by me for my former employer’s most glamorous subsidiary. As will happen, time has separated my Astro animosity from the present. I can watch Astro highlights with a total sense of detachment, no longer conscious that I was, in fact, detached from their corporate organization without my consent.

No wonder players who play the teams that let them go try so hard to beat them. It’s a lousy feeling, particularly when you’re not making the Major League minimum.

But I don’t want to stray into the bitterness of 2004. That’s irrelevant in my life today. I work for other people, including myself, now. It leaves me ample time for blogging. I’m way happier in 2008 not being an Astro than I ever was associated, however vaguely, with their brand. That is not to say, however, that there weren’t some perks.

The cushy seats come to mind.

He’d walk in the door and everybody who worked the room went wild.

—Henry Hill on Jimmy Conway in GoodFellas

I met the ultimate owner of my magazine exactly once. It was at a conference our magazine was holding in a fancy hotel where he lived when he stayed in Houston. I blurted out my bio, that I was his editor, that I was grateful for the opportunity he had given me by starting this new beverage magazine and…

“Well, hi Greg!”

And that was it. He moved onto the next well-wisher, gushing like an oil well. There was no lack of those who wanted to touch him. In a room full of businessmen and businesswomen, he was a rock star, a monster of capitalism. He was a tall, silver Texan hero to these folks. He was the 185th richest American in 2002, according to Forbes. He was, up the line somewhere, my employer.

He charmed his audience that morning. He didn’t dispense sage business advice, didn’t share one stock tip, didn’t unlock any secrets to retailing. He didn’t even tell everybody to KEEP CHARGING! which was how he signed all his notes (I had never received one but I had seen them). He talked about what upstanding human beings some of his players were — singling out Moises Alou among Astro alumni — and why it would be crazy to pitch to Barry Bonds with runners on in that night’s game.

I more or less hated my job by then, September 2003, as Houston got set to host San Francisco in a showdown critical to the Astros’ postseason hopes. The support we were promised wasn’t there, financially or otherwise. A tough ad market (and a Yankees fan publisher who overpromised and underdelivered) had left those whose hands held the purse strings twitchy, as if beverages might be going out of style. We were peppered by negative reinforcement every step of the way. The walls were closing in. A graph representing my professional satisfaction with this venture would have displayed an incline similar to the wrong side of Tal’s Hill. It was sloping inevitably downward.

But there were perks. For one, I got to touch the owner of a Major League Baseball franchise, and there were only thirty of those. For another, I got to Houston, to Minute Maid Park, to Tal’s Hill even. The draw of this conference was not how to make more money selling beverages. It wasn’t even my clever, baseball-themed state of the industry address (its nine segments presented as “innings”). It was the chance to not just be the owner’s guests at an Astros game, it was the chance the night before to roam the outfield, the dugout, the whole shootin’ match, so to speak — everything but the cordoned-off infield.

There was a batting cage and a batting practice pitcher. There was Julio Lugo’s old bat (he was traded when he allegedly [2] put the franchise’s family-friendly image at risk). There was a rolling bar cart. Several of them, actually. Plenty of beverages, a whole mess of food in what the Astros imaginatively named the Diamond Club.

There was the freedom to roam. I stood on Tal’s Hill [3]. I was literally on top of the hill. This is what I came here for, I thought. The advancement and professional growth (blah, blah, blah) had been a sham, but it was going to be cool to work for a company that owns a baseball team. Hell, I’m on the same field a big league ballclub plays on and nobody’s chasing me off!

One night later, I’d watch from centerfield seats above the hill as Marquis Grissom of the Giants stumbled around and fell. Tal’s Hill was an obstacle, a possible deathtrap. Not long after the game and the conference were over, it became apparent the same could be said of my magazine and my job as it pertained to my emotional well-being. I tried real hard to make it go in the ensuing seven months, but let’s just say I never got close to the top of the hill again.

In that September 2003 game, incidentally, Billy Wagner blew the save and sent the Astros reeling out of contention. By April 2004, we’d both be ex-Astros and I’d know exactly how he felt.

But at least I got on that field. And to the cushy seats at Shea.

Polaroid cameras. Stereo sets. Season box to see the Mets.

—Sammy Davis Jr., “My Life Is Good,” from Golden Boy

The publishing division of which we were part wasn’t in Houston. It was outside Chicago. Phone calls from the 630 area code were never welcome in our Manhattan office. Never. Except once.

It was an admin on the line. She wanted to know how many tickets we’d be wanting for the three-game Astros-Mets series coming up at Shea.

Yes, that was a phone call I could take enthusiastically.

As for tickets, sure, I’ll take some tickets. I took four for myself the first night and eight for the staff the next. The first night were your unremarkable outer third base-side field boxes — very nice, but not impossible to obtain in the depths of 2003. The second night, those were the cushy blue seats. Those were the seats the owner of the visiting team got when his club was in town. Those were eight seats literally next to the other team’s dugout, literally steps behind the other team’s on-deck circle.

The cushy blue seats had been installed at Shea Stadium in 1999. It lessened the foul territory and widened the swells factor. I had no idea how much they went for, but I knew they were pricey. It always maddened me when I’d see them unoccupied on television. Now it was going to be up to me and my cohort to do what they did on the Oscars and seat-fill.

We did. Trust me, we did.

Two weeks before the first show of the fifth season, Lorne decided it would be a good idea for the new team to go away for a couple of days together to get in the spirit of the year ahead at a resort called the Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York. Lorne welcomed the new members of the team, telling them that Saturday Night was a family, that they should feel free to ask anybody anything and to share any of their ideas with anyone else. After dinner the first night Paul Shaffer delivered a welcoming speech proclaiming “the new spirit to be created here at Mohonk,” a spirit he summed up in one word: “Yea!” Soon Shaffer was shouting “Yea!” and everybody was shouting back “Yea!” and laughing. But the spirit of Mohonk was not entirely Yea!

—Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, Saturday Night

My goal in building a staff for my new magazine was twofold: get qualified people and get Mets fans…qualified people who were Mets fans, actually, though that’s not the sort of description you could legally place in a classified. As it happened, the qualified people I knew and who were eventually hired also happened to be Mets fans.

Funny how that worked.

It sounds a little silly now to say I had high hopes for us, but I did. I knew we could put out a fine magazine. But I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted it to be Mets fans who got along and helped each other out and talked about the Mets. Pressures internal and external kept it from being the garden of Edens [4] I’d envisioned. Still, we had our moments.

Like the game with the cushy blue seats. That was something. I’d gotten a preview the night before, when I was on the third base side in lesser accommodations. I had been told by the guy who worked for the guy who owned the Astros to swing by and greet some VIP. I wasn’t sure security would let me down that far, but the guy who worked for the guy waved me in. In the course of schmoozing, that guy told that usher that I’d be back with a whole group tomorrow night, take care of my friends here.

We weren’t his friends, but I appreciated the hail-fellow-well-Mets fan gesture, coming as it was from someone who didn’t much care for baseball or our magazine. I’m easily fooled that way.

We don’t have to root for the Astros, but let’s not root against them too loudly, OK?

—Me, requesting cushy blue decorum

For one night we were all in this together, our staff of Mets fans and assorted friends and significant others. There was no tension, no exhaustion, no confusion, all the factors that had plagued us amid the birth pangs of our magazine. For one night we were Mets fans who liked each other, loved our seats and tolerated the affiliation of our patron.

For one night, the Mets and us were literally on different sides. But not for real. We didn’t root against the Astros but we sure as hell didn’t root for them, no matter who issued our paychecks.

We rooted for Raul Gonzalez. Raul was one of the few haltingly non-dim lights of the 2002 fall from grace and I’d been harping that he should have made the team out of Spring Training. He was recalled that afternoon and belted a homer off Roy Oswalt his first time up. I don’t know if my staff was impressed with me as an editor, but when it came to evaluating Quadruple-A outfielders, I looked like a genius.

We rooted for Ty Wigginton. From our closer-than-close seats — the first and second rows — we saw our third baseman struggle with ground balls but never stop giving every one of them his all. It wasn’t pretty, but it was admirable. Ty remains to me the embodiment of the 2003 Mets. I couldn’t help rooting for him even if I knew it wasn’t going to lead anywhere.

We didn’t root for Jose Vizcaino, he who ended Game One of the World Series that couldn’t have possibly included the Mets a mere thirty months earlier (yet did), but at such close range, it was easy to forget how much I swore him off. He was in the Astros on-deck circle, inches away from us, when a ball rolled in his direction. “HEY JOSE!” I called out, as if I’d get preferential souvenir treatment over a child in cushy blue seats not quite as good. I’m not upset I didn’t get a ball. I’m upset I momentarily allowed him out of Met-killer purgatory to beg for one. He went back to being Vizcaino-comma-Jose, utility infielder non grata instantly.

Some things we could get. One of us asked the Astro batboy to give him something, anything. He was slipped a package of sunflower seeds. Four of the eight of us wound up in the AP photo of Gonzalez’s homer. He swung, we sat, the camera clicked. The usher took care of us, too, though I still don’t know what it meant. We ordered from the fancy menu and had all our food and drink delivered as if we owned one of the teams. It was all out of pocket, but given the surroundings, it was kind of worth it.

What you are hired for is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To help us, not to fuck us up. To help men who are going out there to try to earn a living, you fairy, you company man.

—Ricky Roma to John Williamson in Glengarry Glen Ross

And then the game was over. A year later, the magazine — our participation in it, at any rate — was, too. The magazine still exists. The owner of the Astros sold it right around the moment the Astros were blowing the National League pennant to the Cardinals. We Mets fans were all gone by the time he did. The guy who worked for the guy, who made the whole thing sound so appealing in the planning, never failed to remind us that The Man himself wasn’t really all that interested in us or what we were trying to do.

I edited a dozen issues and kept things running against stiffening odds and bizarre corporate whims and in the middle of the great Northeastern blackout of 2003 even. Yet to remember any of that I have to be reminded of it. I’ve put it and the Astros behind me. What I carry with me is the moment on Tal’s Hill and the night in those cushy blue seats and another night when we all went to an Irish bar and saw Mo Vaughn reach a river behind PNC Park and the days when it was my extreme pleasure to announce to my co-workers that WFAN is reporting Jose Reyes has been brought up…and Steve Phillips has been fired…and Roberto Alomar has been traded…and so has Rey Sanchez. The 2003 Mets becoming a little less toxic every couple of weeks certainly dulled the rough edges of editing a magazine that was slowly but surely being squeezed from its moorings.

The day after the game in the visiting owner’s cushy seats, I e-mailed the owner to thank him for arranging our presence, honestly telling him that we appreciated it as Mets fans even though we certainly love the Astros now, too. No reply came. Maybe I shouldn’t have allowed him to so easily infer my split loyalties. Once my nerves settled down from my unamicable departure from his organization a year later, I tried contacting him again, thanking him once more for the opportunity to apply my skills to his property and for whatever I learned in my seventeen months in his employ.

This time he e-mailed me back, telling me, whoever I was, that “you did a great job and I have no doubt that you continue to be very successful.” And then he told me to “KEEP CHARGING!”

Not bad advice, when you think about it.

You can be an Astro. I’m gonna be a Met.

—4-1/2 Year-Old Ryan Weathers to his father David Weathers upon learning of Dad’s trade to Houston in the middle of 2004

The group that hopped two or more trains to get to those cushy blue seats five years ago (we disagreed on the quickest route, split up and arrived at Shea at the exact same juncture) wasn’t totally tight-knit in real time, but, sort of like what you read about with the Ford administration’s members on the occasion of the 38th president’s passing, lasting friendships were made and cemented from our brief detour of duty together. When one of us got married [5] in 2005, all of us were on hand. When one of us had a book published [6] in 2008, all of us came to the launch party. I see each of them at Shea often, far from the visiting owner’s box. We all survived. None of us are Astros. We remain forever Mets.

Works for me.